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Polk County Court Hears Second Challenge To Judicial Nominating Changes

An attorney argued in Polk County District Court that the law changing the makeup of the judicial nominating commission should be struck down because his client applied to serve on the Iowa Court of Appeals, but he wasn't chosen by the new commission.

The process for selecting Iowa Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges was discussed in Polk County District Court again Friday as part of the second lawsuit over changes Republican lawmakers made earlier this year.

The 17-member state judicial nominating commission considers applications from people seeking seats on Iowa’s highest courts. The commission interviews applicants, and then sends three names to the governor, who chooses a new judge or justice from those nominees.

The commission used to have eight members appointed by the governor, eight attorneys elected by other attorneys, and the senior justice of the Iowa Supreme Court as chairperson.

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature passed a controversial law that removed the senior justice and gave the governor nine appointments to the nominating commission. It also shortened the term of the chief justice.

The first legal challenge of the changes was dismissed because a Polk County judge determined lawyers and Democratic lawmakers didn’t prove they were adversely affected by the new law.

Attorney Bob Rush said Friday the second lawsuit should advance because plaintiff Thomas Duff applied to serve on the Iowa Court of Appeals. The nominating panel, in its new form, didn’t choose him as a nominee. 

“His injury is real,” Rush said. “It is not an injury in general to the rest of the Iowa population, it’s very unique to him as an individual now and in the future.”

Assistant Attorney General David Ranscht said the case should be dismissed because Duff didn’t show that this law change may have adversely affected him.

“Voiding the law doesn’t make Mr. Duff a judge,” Ranscht said. “Restoring the commission doesn’t make Mr. Duff a nominee. Restoring the commission doesn’t make Mr. Duff a judge.”

Both lawsuits claim the judicial nominating changes violate the constitutional provision that bills should include only one subject that is expressed in the title. These changes were tucked into a budget bill at the end of the 2019 legislative session.

The lawsuits also claim shortening the chief justice’s term is unconstitutional overreach by the legislative branch into the affairs of the judicial branch.

Rush said the original lawsuit, on which he is the lead plaintiff, is scheduled to be heard by the Iowa Court of Appeals in November.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter